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Climate Talks Leave Question: Who Runs Earth's Thermostat?

Buenos Aires meeting airs fresh debate on voluntary cuts in pollution and the sale of pollution 'credits.'

No one ever said the international effort to fight global warming would be easy, and the 169-nation gathering now winding down in Buenos Aires just proves it.

Sharp differences remain between developed and developing nations. Within the industrially advanced nations there are differences as well. Yesterday the US was expected to sign the protocol agreed upon at Kyoto, Japan, in December, when the international community met under the auspices of the United Nations.

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The gesture was largely symbolic, intended to show the world that the US is serious in its efforts to help stem global warming. But the extent to which the United States can act remains tied up in domestic politics. The Senate must still ratify the deal.

As delegates scrambled to put the best face on their efforts in Argentina this week, chief US negotiator Stuart Eizenstat spoke for many when he said, "This is a marathon, not a sprint."

Among the key questions upon which further progress depends: Who goes first in reducing the "greenhouse gas" emissions suspected of causing global warming? What role should industrially advanced nations play in helping poorer countries comply? Do "voluntary" commitments count? Should oil-producing countries be compensated for the decline in fossil-fuel use that inevitably must come as countries cut their greenhouse gases?

When it met in Kyoto, the international community agreed that 38 developed nations should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels sometime between 2008 and 2012 - a considerable amount in an era of steadily expanding economies. Exactly how that should be done, and how and when developing countries should get involved, were left for later.

The two-week meeting in Argentina scheduled to end today is the first of several followup meetings to be held over the next two to three years.

All along, a main sticking point has been the role of countries that are scrambling to catch up economically - and in the process building the industrial infrastructure that is bound to cause pollution. From China and India on down, such countries say it is the US, Japan, and Europe which should take the lead in cutting the greenhouse gases they produce in far greater quantities than the rest of the world.

The United States - the largest producer of greenhouse gases - has been holding out for some kind of "meaningful participation" by developing countries before it will even consider ratifying the Kyoto protocol. While most of the other 38 developed countries have not seen this as a prerequisite to their signing the treaty (the United States was the only one not to have done so going into the Buenos Aires meeting), there is growing agreement that developing countries must start moving on their own to attack global warming.

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"Industrialized countries have to take the lead. There's no doubt about it," said Martin Bartenstein, an Austrian delegate and spokesman for the European Union. "But there will be a time coming when it will have to be a global effort."

A modest breakthrough in this regard happened this week when host country Argentina offered a "voluntary commitment" to set targets and timetables for curbing its emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The former Soviet republic of Kazakstan then said it too would accept emissions targets, and a group of about 20 other developing nations began discussing a similar move.

"We all have a responsibility," said Argentine President Carlos Menem, who told delegates his country would follow the same 2008-2012 schedule as developed countries.

Skeptics were quick to note that Mr. Menem leaves office next year with no guarantee that a successor government would follow his lead. There were other questions as well.

"Voluntary, what does that mean?" asked US Rep. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, one of the congressional observers in Buenos Aires. "There are no specifics on what that would mean or how they would do it."

Among developed countries, the main point of contention unresolved at Buenos Aires is the extent to which emissions trading and other market-based economic mechanisms should be allowed as part of greenhouse gas reductions. Such trading would enable countries to buy and sell the right to pollute, as long as overall reduction goals were met.

The United States wants no restrictions on such activity. EU countries want to cap such trading in order to make sure that countries do all they can to reduce their own emissions.

The Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress continue to wrestle over how the US should proceed.

"As this treaty stands now, it will not be ratified by the US Senate," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, head of the congressional observers in Buenos Aires. "It's dead on arrival."

Faced with a Republican majority in Congress (and some Democrats from energy-producing and industrial states that oppose the Kyoto agreement as well), the Clinton administration is doing what it can to proceed without Senate ratification.

The recent budget agreement includes a 25 percent increase (to $1 billion) in federal spending for research on energy resources that don't pollute.

And the White House is backing bipartisan legislation that would give companies monetary credits for voluntarily reducing greenhouse gas emissions before any treaty takes effect.

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